Hacker News new | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
Design is Horseshit (yongfook.com)
283 points by thesethings on Dec 16, 2011 | hide | past | web | favorite | 141 comments

A startup blogger writes a polemic with a blatantly baiting headline. Within 24 hours, another startup blogger will write a rebuttal with an equally baiting headline. Both will incite winding debates on Hacker News.

Meanwhile, other people will somehow manage to create value, ostensibly the goal of both bloggers, without writing confrontational screeds, perhaps even writing insightful blog posts intended to inspire and challenge rather than stir up conflict.

Maybe it's writing polemics that is horseshit.

Do you disagree with this polemic?

It's pretty specific and clear: it argues that plenty of startups are successful with virtually no design at all, with interfaces as clunky as "clients call us on the phone" or "emailing spreadsheets back and forth". It implicitly argues, "early stage startups are continuously faced with a choice of spending energy on design† or on customer discovery", and "early stage startups should virtually always opt for customer discovery".

I can see how a reasonable person might disagree with that.

I don't see how a reasonable person could say that the question isn't a reasonable one to pose.

Admittedly a synecdoche for lots of other things, like scalability, code quality, test coverage, &c

I don't think the content of this post is the objectionable part per se. I suspect GP is just tired of these self-important flame wars plastered all over HN. These epic battles of egos, written in a tone that incites rather than argue, are getting very, very tiresome.

Android vs. iPhone. Devs vs. Designers. Tech founders vs. Non-tech founders. MBAs vs. CS. Instead of just arguing the merits of whatever point one has, it's become all too common to just lob ad hominem insults, call each other self-indulgent assholes, declare each others' views to be "horseshit", etc etc. It's grandiose posteuring and "witty" jabs disguised under a thin veneer of "legitimate discussion". It's like watching a pro wrestling match.

This is what I enjoy least about the startup community - and it certainly and obviously isn't contained to just HN. There's so much venom being spewed around for no good reason whatsoever. All of this mud-slinging is about as mature and informative as Kim Kardashian on TV.

It's like we can't communicate an opinion or belief without wrapping our entire egos into and making a spectacle out of it. Shit, I think I'd rather watch reality TV - they're about as nasty to each other as we are, but at least there's the off chance of ladies mud-wrestling.

It seems the author might do better framing this as "don't design first" (which would also be a significantly less baiting headline). While it's certainly not how I would build a startup, if it works for some, I won't argue against evidence.

But most of the post is spent venting against a perceived popular bias in favor of visual designers over "real value creators." The problem with that is that everyone who contributes to a product or service can create value—a particular startup may not need design early on, or it may not need developers early on, but it depends on the market it's tackling. The wrong omissions can spell disaster; the right omissions can spell success.

I think this makes a lot of sense. Like, if you work at a web design shop and your website doesn't look good, you're doing it wrong IMO.

It's impossible to create anything at all "without" design.

Design is not graphical embellishment. Design is decision making of appearance and functionality.

Here's the problem with the "plenty of startups are successful with virtually no design at all" argument:

It ignores the special nature of the customer.

To talk about these successful startups, or design in general, as if there is one true answer is like talking about price. You can't have price without value, you can't have value without the exact customer in mind, so gabbling on about it in the abstract is an utter waste of time.

SOME customers are totally insensitive to good user interface, good flow, good product education, etc. They don't care if there are features which are pleasantly surprising. They don't care if they have to wade through poorly laid out, confusing forms, or configure things when smart assumptions could be made for them instead, etc., etc., etc. They are so desperate, or otherwise so used to using crap, that they just don't care. These people are also insensitive to visual design.

And ALL those things distinctly fall under "design."

MOST customers do not act like that. They crave software which is a pleasure to use, that anticipates their needs and provides them with things they never would have thought to ask for but later cannot live without, software that saves them massive amounts of time, software which prevents or eliminates anxiety & stress, software that doesn't make them do shit work, etc.

Software, in other words, which is well-designed.

The visual styling on top is a bonus -- these customers like pretty things -- but as long as it's not butt ugly, software with all those other features will do well with the majority of potential customers.

If it's pretty, the effect is multiplied. Some customers don't care or even actively dislike attractive things, but they are not the majority.

Whether or not total crap design will work for you wholly depends on who you're trying to get to give you money.

I definitely do not identify as a "startup blogger". I'm not even really a blogger.

This is just a topic that bugged me.

So. You definitely know the difference between visual design and interaction/workflow design.

Why the flamebait?

And somehow HN still manages to find a way feel superior to both. Meanwhile, other people will somehow manage to create value, ostensibly the goal of HN posters, without writing snarky comments, they will succeed to create something truly new and inspiring.

Maybe it's posting on HN that is horseshit.

HN reply of the year.

Haha...I did write a response, but I tried to not be as baiting...in fact I hate the whole "horseshit" meme...can't we just respectfully debate?

Heaven forfend that people converse!

This stuff was bizarre to me:

> Design enhances value, it does not create it. Stop creating shitty startups that look amazing.

> It is to a massive degree much, much easier to spend a week pushing pixels to create something beautiful

> If there’s one thing you can rely on everyone having an opinion on, it’s how something should look.

(my emphasis)

The author's conniption would appear to be around graphic design. Graphic design is a subset of design, and covers nothing close to the full scope of what goes into the design of a new product. Design is about how things work and, often, what feelings they evoke in the process. How they look can be a part of that, but it needn't always be.

For example: how delightful is it to work with a great API? Something straightforward, well-documented, but nonetheless powerful? It's such a joy. But it requires effort: planning, understanding, experimentation, adjustment, refining, etc. In a word, design.

As a test, consider the following:

Is it first engine design or is it engine making? Airframe design or airframe building? Circuit design or circuit assembly? You can't make the engine until someone designs it first. How it looks doesn't much matter – how it works is non-negotiably essential.

Something that works well is said to be well-designed. Something that merely looks nice can be pretty – and terribly designed.

So a startup can't have something be both shitty and well-designed at the same time.

The notion that design is a differentiating characteristic for startups comes from the fact that many incumbent products simply do not work well. By designing a product that addresses a given workflow faster, with greater convenience, with greater fun, you're making something that works better.

We're past the point where you can build technology that fits requirements and stop there. Everyone else has done that already. Now success comes in making things that are satisfying, not obnoxious, that are easily learned, that make users excited to show their friends.

tl;dr: Someone doesn't grasp the difference between design and making nice graphics, throws a tantrum of a non-sequitur.

Your criticism seems to center around your dislike of him using "design" as a shorthand for "graphic design". But this is hardly unique to the author to say the least.

In any case, what you go to say hardly contradicts what the author is saying ... except if you redefine what he's saying as being about you think "design" ought mean instead of how he's clearly using it.


Words mean things.

If I cry out, at the top of my lungs, that "Pizza is fucking bullshit!", then go on to say that I hate how pizza kills people, tears countries apart, and delivers atrocities, people will narrow their eyes and say "Actually, I think you're thinking of war." And then they're going to be a little weirded out that I said something so simultaneously bizarre and incorrect just to get their attention.

The thing is, when someone says "design is a differentiator," they're not really talking about how it looks, either. Because appearance is very rarely a lasting means of differentiation.

My criticism is not that he's using the word wrong. It's that he's invested a lot of flaming in the process of misunderstanding people who aren't.

I don't this is a good analogy except if you cry out about pizza in a place where people are used to using 'pizza' as slang for 'war'. That's the situation here, isn't it? People in the "startup community" already use the word 'design' in the narrow sense of 'graphic design'.

Well, they shouldn't. I expect far more from someone calling themselves a "designer" than their ability to draw a nice button or pick decent fonts. I expect them to be thinking about interaction, flow, "how it works", and so on.* If not, then they're qualified not as a "graphic designer", but as a "bad designer". If someone only wants to draw, they can call themselves a "graphic designer" and I'll call them when I just need a graphic (i.e. never, since I don't work in print).

* I expect the same from anyone who has anything to do with a UI/UX.

Pizza is a subset of war?

No, as per the original post, I guess war would be a subset of pizza.

Remember the Battle of Salamis!

(One blogger took a comment I wrote out of context for humor's sake and asked if we "needed a nice violent movie about Salamis")

The competition of building a winning pizza business is as tiny a subset of war as is making pretty graphics a subset of design.

Design is a huge, varied, powerful thing. Design has moved the world forward, ever since the first human reasoned that he could make his stone tool n% more effective by adjusting it just so. Design brought us locomotives, bridges, precision tools, entire revolutions of industry.

In other words, conflating making things pretty with the enormous might of what humans do with the act of design is as silly as conflating pizza and war.

Life is just so much more interesting than that.

It's hardly his dislike - design has meant, for the longest time, how things work, not just how things look (well, to be exact design is a balance between materials, functionality, and aesthetics). Design is more than just art.

Don't believe me? Name me one design award that awards aesthetics alone. You won't find one, unless you're looking for an arts medal (edit: even graphics design awards have some sort of form and function criteria).

Even if he redefines design to "how things work", the author is still correct.

Who cares 1) how well something looks, and 2) how usable something is, if that thing provides no value to him?

I think you're being disingenuous and deliberately misreading the OP because you wanted to write what amounts to a pet peeve. It was clear, even to you, what he meant; you admit as much in your last sentence. But you still went ahead and acted like you had not understood.

Had you merely disagreed with his terminology, and left at that - it would be more forgivable. But you're trying to use it to discount what he said by deliberately misreading it, and thereby you're not actually addressing his argument.

It's nice to have thoughts.

I, for example, think this has nothing to do with "pet peeves" or deliberate misunderstandings. I think that the broader discussion of the role of design is very important and powerful, and calling design "bullshit" is a profoundly ignorant position to take. I think that building a cute little straw man and then burning him adds very little of the vaunted value the author has described.

One of the beauties of thoughts is that you get to have yours and I get to have mine. The meta stuff, here, eh, not so useful.

"Design is about how things work"

True, but this definition is a bit vague. Even if we think that this is not vague, then people with graphics design background should stop calling themselves designers, and engineers (who have years of training on some aspect of how some things should work) could call themselves designers. There will always be a debate on what exactly 'design' is, and who exactly a 'designer' is, because this is a bit artifical terminology in my opinion. (Long years ago, when engineers created mostly buildings engineers were also meant to be designers.)

I am an engineer/programmer, but I would feel extremely sad, uncreative, and a worthless biorobot if I could not see myself a 'designer' if we take the meaning of design very broadly.

>>"...people with graphics design background should stop calling themselves designers, and engineers (...) could call themselves designers."

Graphic design essentially concerns itself with how information is presented and consumed. This information can be presented in many different ways; ink on paper as an example or pixels on a screen. Part of the designers job is to solve the problem of how best to present the information, which may take the form of a call to action on a website or a tear-off in a magazine or what weight and style the fonts should be right down to the basic structure of the arrangements of elements on the screen/page/advertising hoarding. I know that most people think of this as a trivial task, but it isn't. It is the fundamental difference between good and great.

Engineers are designers, if one ever tells you otherwise, they don't have an understanding of what it is that they do.

When contemporary reviews pan a product for poor design they usually complain about how it looks and weighs. Few reviewers take the effort to dig in and critique what the product does. Given this status quo its hard to blame anyone for equating cosmetics with design.

Fun question - is emacs well designed ? What would a reviewer on engadget etc say if they came across it. Would they concede it has a better design than say - Textmate?

When Apple fans talk about the product being well designed its inevitably about the physical manifestation of the product - how it looks, what its battery life is, its weight etc. I fully concede that apple products are well designed in their own right and have a fantastical attention to detail, but the only details that get covered in the press and by evangelists are the ones that have to do with cosmetics or physical attributes.

Lastly - someone on this thread mentioned craigslist as having bad design. I think that is the classic example of equating cosmetics with design. I have yet to find another website that allows me to finish the task at hand with as little fuss and as few clicks. There are flaws to craigslist - like their ability to curate content in realtime - but their design to me is unobtrusive and efficient.

>>"When Apple fans talk about the product being well designed its inevitably about the physical manifestation of the product - how it looks, what its battery life is, its weight etc."

Along with terms like "It's really easy to use". The physical manifestation of any product, be it a torch, a pizza or a web based app, is part of it's design, as is the why and how of it's workings.

Do you disagree that the why and the how of what a product does are under represented in contemporary reviews?

Not entirely; it totally depends on the source. I get what you are saying and I'd concur that good reviews/reviewers are thin on the ground. I consider the why and how to be part of the physical manifestation, but then I am an industrial design so probably not best placed to comment! I do think that, as designers, we need to educate people more about what design is. It'd help if the prima donna element weren't so vociferous, but then we could say that about most professions...

Well said. The misuse of the word design is ubiquitous.

I just looked at the Designer Fund thing for a second, but I noticed a headshot of Luke Wroblewski on there. He co-founded the IxDA, wrote the books Mobile First and Web Form Design (both awesome), and then was co-founder and chief product officer at Bagcheck (that got acquired by Twitter). He's creating value as far as I'm concerned.

> We're past the point where you can build technology that fits requirements and stop there. Everyone else has done that already.

You are too quick to close this big door here. You could do them relatively "ugly" and "difficult to use" if you'd do a driverless cars, a plane with real beds, a self-backuped unlimited size hard-drive for music and movies, a viable water desalinisator, a cheap enough 3D printer, a bodyless computer monitor, or even a working dating site.

Not that I disagree with the rest, but let's not say everything is done already and just needs to be done better.

Graphic design is multi-faceted and isn't just the process of creating pretty pictures. It's a holistic process encompassing form and function

"""This stuff was bizarre to me: > Design enhances value, it does not create it. Stop creating shitty startups that look amazing. > It is to a massive degree much, much easier to spend a week pushing pixels to create something beautiful > If there’s one thing you can rely on everyone having an opinion on, it’s how something should look.""" """

Really? Because it seems damn logical to me.

"""The author's conniption would appear to be around graphic design. Graphic design is a subset of design, and covers nothing close to the full scope of what goes into the design of a new product. Design is about how things work and, often, what feelings they evoke in the process. How they look can be a part of that, but it needn't always be."""

Yeah. Only in web design it almost always are. And in the specific "over-designed" startup web services he rants about it always is. We all heard the quote "design is how it works" from Jobs et co. But:

1) In most cases it's 80% graphic design and 20% though of how it works. 2) How it works still means nothing, if WHAT IT DOES does not add value.

Customers don't care how "well designed" (graphically AND in "how it works") a service is, if that service does nothing useful for them.

Example: a well designed and totally usable "social something" site -- and why would I want to use that if no one of my friends is using it?

tl;dr: both how it looks and how it works are secondary to what if offers the customer

> Customers don't care how "well designed" (graphically AND in "how it works") a service is, if that service does nothing useful for them.

This is a good point; the value proposition is independent of design. And in fact if the value proposition is strong enough than people will fight through terrible design as long as it minimally works. However for most products the value is either middling or else obscured by novelty (often the case with new tech), and this is where bad design can sink a viable product by frustrating too many people, or great design can flip the viral coefficient to positive growth by increasing conversions of casual visitors.

>>"tl;dr: both how it looks and how it works are secondary to what if offers the customer"

The product (App/Pizza/Car/Suppository/Whatever) still needs designing; i.e. a problem exists that needs solving. However you want to phrase it, a problem is solved by designing, be it using established patterns or generating new solutions. How it looks and how it works should be intrinsic to what a product offers. None of the elements are mutually exclusive.

Design is clarity.

Design is intention.

Design is function.

Design is appeal.

And, sure, design is appearance.

It should be no surprise that, yes, if you can pump enough raw "value" into something, however you care to define value, that you can ignore or short shrift design. Go ahead, limit your chances by killing your first impressions. Write poorly in your presentations while you are at it.

I mean if gold starts pouring out of your user's computer's USB ports when they load up your web page, you're right. They won't care what the background color is or what that blob in your logo is supposed to represent. If the reward is high enough, they'll kill themselves finding that magic button among all the log ins, captchas, and cryptic navigation tools.

But if you're trying to sell a new idea, one that may be unfamiliar, or if your "value" depends on the size of your user base, you might want to spent the time and effort to respect your user enough to make it clear what you intend to do. And what's in it for them.

Good ideas, and value, are sometimes not enough. They require a context to be useful and acceptable. Good engineers know this.

And, sometimes, a nice little shrubbery, in just the right place, and a splash of color, can make all the difference.


Invoice is in the mail.

Fun rant. I wish he defined what exactly he means by design. (Amusing exercise: replace all occurrences of 'design' with 'blub'.) The core of the post for me was:

> Stop creating shitty startups that look amazing. A product or service that is indispensably useful yet looks like ass is infinitely more likely to be successful than a product that solves zero problems but looks like a work of art.

I'd say sure, in general, though that does beg the question for what problems so many "useless" but successful apps solve. (Mindless entertainment, I guess.) More importantly, though, "design" and functionality and usefulness are not at odds.

For some fun (probably less comprehensible) rantings in the other direction, have a look at http://richardkulisz.blogspot.com/2011/05/engineers-are-infe... and http://richardkulisz.blogspot.com/2011/06/design-principles-...

And yet Apple is/was the most valuable company in the world, largely due to design.

Saying "design is horseshit" makes about as much sense as saying "engineering is horseshit" or "writing well is horseshit". Read: it makes absolutely no sense.

Apple is a not a particularly pertinent example. I'm not particularly familiar with Apple's history, but I suspect that their products delivered value immediately--people actually had a use for their stuff that nobody else could supply. Then, thanks to design (and marketing, and fashion, and engineering, and...) they grew.

The whole point of the article is that the foundation of any successful company lies in the value it provides people. Everything else--design is singled out because of the earlier article on the matter--is built on that foundation. Since a startup is just the foundation of a company, its primary goal should be creating a product people use.

In short, he didn't really mean that design is completely worthless--it is merely worthless without a solid product behind it. The same could be said about engineering and strong copy; neither is going to matter if you're making something utterly useless. Thus, given this meaning of "design is horseshit", "engineering/writing well is horseshit" actually makes sense.

Coincidentally, I agree with the idea behind the post: producing something viable is the most important thing a startup can do; the younger a startup is, the more important the product's value. However, I think the overly sensational, antagonistic and slightly misleading title was poorly chosen to represent his point. The post is solid but the title isn't. It does drive clicks and readers, so in a sense it was successful, but primarily from its less desirable qualities.

     In short, he didn't really mean that design is completely worthless
Seriously? Because the term horseshit sounds pretty worthless to me.

I take it you've never bought manure. Selling shit is business.

As I said in the end, the title is poorly chosen and doesn't really correspond to the post. As I read it, the idea isn't that design is worthless but that to a startup having a product people use is infinitely more important. I bet he just used "horseshit" because it came up in an article about ios recently (and to get more views).

100% correct. I read this after posting a similar reply to another poster above:


> but I suspect that their products delivered value immediately

And there is inherent value to delivering overall value quicker.

Apple wasn't a "design startup". Sure, Jobs valued design, but none of Apple's founders were designers.

"Design is a funny word. Some people think design means how it looks. But of course, if you dig deeper, it's really how it works." - SJ

Jobs had a major role in how the products at Apple have worked from the start.

I also recall Jobs making interface design references in his Stanford commencement speech about typography, calligraphy, kerning, and typesets. This happened before he started Apple.

One of my favorite SJ quotes! I find it hard to believe the poster is opposed to spending time figuring out how your product should work. Maybe he really just means a startup needs to focus early on, and not waste time on inessentials. I actually hope, though, that Apple's success will make good design (in SJ's sense) more common in the tech industry.

Design is not a pretty facade to a product, and designers aren't just responsible for aesthetics. Design is as much about how the product works as how it looks, and a designer worth their stock options understands that they aren't drawing pretty pictures of websites, they're designing with a purpose: to create an enjoyable experience and ultimately a functional, beautiful product that adds value to users lives.

I think he gets that. I think he sees the real tradeoff, between elegant, usable, pleasurable user experiences that in and of themselves make people want to come back to the product, and raw value creation. And he's saying, for early stage startups, raw value creation is more important no matter how clunky it is.

"that solves zero problems but looks like a work of art"

"It is to a massive degree much, much easier to spend a week pushing pixels to create something beautiful"

"Everyone’s a fucking designer now

If there’s one thing you can rely on everyone having an opinion on, it’s how something should look."

"no shimmering design"

"They didn’t solve problems! Who fucking cares how it looks!"

I don't think he gets it at all.

I understand why you wouldn't like the tone he's writing with, but if you reread those carefully you're going to find that they don't refute my point.

I'm so much less interested in discussing one guy's style than I am in the real point he's making. Nobody's going to remember this blog post in 2 weeks. But startups are going to continue running aground on the mistake he's pointing out.

Note carefully: by "gets it", I'm not saying he gets, like, "the universe", the "ineffable 'it'". I'm saying, the thing you don't think he gets, that there's a real material cost to ignoring design, he probably does get. The fact that bad design has a cost isn't dispositive, because the cost of bad design has to be weighed against the benefit of spending that effort somewhere else.

I don't know why tptacek's comment is downvoted.

My take is that Enrique Allen, the guy behind the D-Fund, is not trying to say "startups should focus more on retention and user experience," he's trying to say "startups should think about users in an effective way."

In a recent talk Allen gave, the designer-founders he mentioned all had significant programming experience.

Almost all of the people he mentions could code their own products. So, he's not saying "get a bunch of photoshop designers to improve your ux," he saying "having people who think from a design perspective can be the difference between a product succeeding and failing."

For him, a design perspective could include something like thinking "how should I construct this API so that people will be able to use this library?"

And what I'm saying is that he doesn't see design as "elegant, usable, pleasurable user experiences that in and of themselves make people want to come back to the product".

Because once you do, you see that design and "raw value creation" aren't mutually exclusive. But it's easy to see them as mutually exclusive when you give design a definition of "make things beautiful", exactly as he did.

The problem is, design is not something you just slap on later. If it is not here from the start it won't be there at the end unless you redo everything from scratch. Design as an afterthought is a lipstick on a pig.

I don't think design should ever be slapped on. But I do think it makes the most sense to test and launch a first version with what amounts to a functional wireframe/prototype, if possible.

Alright Captain Obvious.

Design alone is horseshit. Engineering alone is horshit. Blogging alone is horseshit. Marketing alone is horseshit.

But put these together in the right proportion and you get a beautiful product. The proportion depends on your product/service. It takes a lot less selling, if the visual design of the product is impressive. It releases dopamine in your customer's head which urges them to put their credit card number in the checkout form. It may not be important for enterprise product as the person signing the cheque does not use your product. But it is vital for consumer and small business based products. But I agree with the author that pretty design is not a substitute for good engineering, good customer support or good marketing.

that last sentence 100% misses my point.

you were right at the start: Engineering is also horseshit. You can have the most beautifully engineered solution to a problem that nobody has or is willing to pay to have solved, and you'll still have a bullshit startup. Marketing is also horseshit. You can have the most amazingly viral video for a product that nobody wants and you will still end up with 0 sales and long-term, 0 customers.

the point here is that there isn't a startup fund or growing sentiment that seems to champion engineering or blogging or X as a fundamental part of the startup equation. it's all just a toolbox. but strangely, there is one for design.

the real issue that early startups need to focus on is solving a problem and creating value. that's actually much, much harder than you think and it should be 100% of the focus in the early stages.

forget about engineering and design.

Having a technical co-founder is nearly prerequisite at YC, AngelPad and with most later stage funds...so there's already been enough funds championing engineering and there's been countless essays written celebrating hackers and specific grant programs etc...so we can also celebrate designers too and start creating a positive feedback loop, it's not either or... and I definitely agree with you about focusing on creating value, Eric Ries is also a venture advisor, so I subscribe to lean startup methods too... and yes forget about engineering and design titles too, what matters is a critical mass of skills and resources to execute...

Just because engineering and design and marketing each alone are not enough does not make them "horseshit". It just makes them overrated.

It doesn't even necessarily make them overrated. It just means they must be in the service of larger, business concerns.

Design is not just about pixel pushing and pixel perfecting. It is more than that. The blogger purely equates design = making things pretty, which is not true.

Design starts from understanding and empathizing with the user. Design helps to shape the product and connect with the users emotionally.

The Design Fund highlights the importance of designers in startups not just because they make things look pretty. Designers are usually trained to understand users emotionally. An engineer look at a problem and start using equations to solve it. A designer look at a problem, start by understanding the user, and develop a way to solve it.

Design teams in big companies have User Researchers (on the ground, understanding users, find out needs, etc), User Experience Designers (connecting the dots from research to product, how the product should function and flow), Interaction Designers (that transition effect you see in iOS? not just pretty. Helps users to orientate where they are at), Visual Designers (make things pretty).

As you can see, in the whole field of design, only Visual Designers are the ones who really make things pretty. Once again, The Design Fund values designers because they look at things differently, and they can build products with emotion. (Apple products have a lot of emotion tied to people)

*I am not part of The Design Fund.

Design != making things beautiful.

In fact, the design community faces a huge problem because almost everyone thinks design == make things beautiful and that is one of the things that has been holding back design in startups for so long.

commieneko said it well:

"Design is clarity. Design is intention. Design is function. Design is appeal. And, sure, design is appearance."

So yes, spending a ton of time altering the drop shadow on your button and the RGB value of your logo might be time wasted in a startup. But spending time clarifying what your product does, or devising a smoother way to onboard users, or figuring out a way to highlight your more expensive plan, or any number of other things good designers are thinking about while also "making things beautiful" is not wasting time.

Actually, designing a smoother on-ramping process is a huge waste of time if you're trying to on-ramp users into a product they're not going to find valuable. This point seems pedantic but isn't; plenty of startups create well-oiled machines that nobody needs, and fail as a result.

Plenty more probably create valuable products that are hidden behind l33t interfaces and web pages that look like someone vomited up four different wordpress themes. Odds are these products are also going to die a slow death because the value they bring is too well hidden behind poor design choices. Arguing at the extremes provides no value here. In the vast middle there are probably products that could provide more value (and more revenue) with a bit of thought given to design and how the end-user will interact with the product.

Sure, that's a good point too. Maybe a productive response to this rant is, "yes, but: if you're going defer design work, keep your interface minimal and unamibitious".

> I love good design and I am good at design. But I’ve never called myself a designer.

> 1. Designers tweet and blog

> 2. Design is a cheap way to appear like you’re creating value


> I’ve created products / services in the past that have garnered praise for their design.

> 3. Everyone’s a fucking designer now

Face it, you're a designer.

> Design enhances value, it does not create it. Stop creating shitty startups that look amazing.

I don't understand how enhancing value doesn't create value. Value is value, there isn't good value and bad value, there's only more or less of it. If pushing pixels does a better job enhancing value than creating features then I am absolutely going to (have someone else) design the shit out of that product.

I see design much like I see testing. Both of these are meant to build integrity in your product. Design is perceived integrity, while testing is conceptual. If you don't proactively maintain the integrity then the lack of quality compounds. Treating them like a second class citizen will do nothing but cause troubles.

>I don't understand how enhancing value doesn't create value. Value is value, there isn't good value and bad value

He was saying that design is multiplicative, not additive. You could have an extremely beautiful and well designed app but, if the idea doesn't first provide value to your customers, you're just polishing the brass on the Titanic.

"The Design of Everyday Things" talks primarily about functionality, and frames design so broadly as to be almost indistinguishable from "solving a user problem".

As an example, Roy Fielding describes the URLs that a RESTful webservice includes in its representation of a resource (for what transitions are available to other states) as "affordances". It could even be argued that Codd's relational model was a better "design" for thinking about databases, which he presented in terms of the problem of data models being too closely coupled with storage representation.

Of course, even this broad sense of design doesn't address whether there's a market for a solution; but it does address whether you can make a solution that's better. I can see the sense in seeking a problem that needs to be solved - in being "market-driven"... but personally, I'm much more excited about creating something better (which is only possible when you already know the problem and some existing solution, because "better than" takes two operands). And that seems to be the history of all the products I admire.

The author makes some interesting points but should be more specific that he is referring to Aesthetic Design.

Design is everywhere not just in the shiny stuff. Design is a workflow, response, messaging, interaction... These are all areas of design you might not be able to see immediately but are often the key components of making a great product.

My guess is that every one of the companies he considers successful had good design baked into their products somewhere (even if they had terrible aesthetics).

To categorize all design in this way is very misleading to those starting a company.


Some final words on this. Some people have interpreted this as me not understanding the value of good design. I assure you I do from experience, tweet at me if you want specifics.

However - create value before exploring how design can enhance the experience. Solve a real customer problem. If you’re an early stage startup with no revenue, don’t even think about design! Think hard about what problem you can solve that a customer will give you $10 for and work your ass off at delivering that $10 of value as fast and as cheaply as possible. It doesn’t even matter if you’re not aiming to make a paid service. If people won’t give you money to solve their problems, it’s not a real fucking problem. It’s just another novelty echo-chamber startup that you might get a chance to flip to a bigger fish if you win the startup lottery. Don’t be an idiot and buy into that. Solve a problem, live forever. The idea that design is what early stage startups should be busying their time with is a notion I find utterly wrong.


"If you’re an early stage startup with no revenue, don’t even think about design!"

One would thinking that making your credit card form easy to use and find for customers is fairly integral to making revenue. You can have the most awesome service in the world but if you make it hard for people to pay you money, you're not going to make money.

But, that time designing the form is better spent making sure that you actually have something that customers would pay for. My experience has been that if you have something of value, customers will want to pay for it and you can worry about getting paid at that point.

Worrying about how to get money for a product without value is a waste of time/resources.

what's the point of having a beautiful credit card form for something nobody actually wants?

that's what early stage startups are supposed to be figuring out, not optimizing their credit card forms.

What's the post of having something people want but they can't actually use it?

There are many strategies for survival. Some involve taking tiny steps with customer revenue at each one. Some involve solving a bigger problem that takes time and investment. Whichever approach you take, you usually need some luck to survive.

While that's a ridiculously trolling headline, I agree with the argument. I'm a designer(check my profile) and my job is to communicate ideas and products not create them.

Thanks. I think the vast majority of people who take issue with the post are those people who only read the title.

It sounds like he is attacking a straw man. It doesn’t seem like anyone is making the arguments he is attacking, especially not on the page he is linking to and saying he is responding to. Specifically (for example) no one seems to claim that designers are “the new kings of startups”.

Not only that, but his countering suggestion is a single word, "value", that he doesn't define or substantiate. Beyond any simple idea of what people want, you almost always need to build a product that they can use and like to use, and that needs good design. Not graphic design -- interaction design.

Why so many of these content-less posts on HN front page lately?

value = solve a real problem

there is always value in that

Design is about solving problems. That's the point that you have missed entirely. While I'm on it; engineers are designers too. Pick up any book about software engineering that you care to choose and the word "design" will be used extensively, especially in reference to solving problems. With regards to aesthetics, this is simple: the more elegant the solution, the easier and arguably more desirable it is to use.

And what design has to do with that? If your product does not solve a real problem it is not worth to exist with or sans design. If it does, design is important.

(I submitted this, but don't know the author personally, so there are some assumptions built into to the following.)

[edit- regarding issue of straw man perception] The issue is that nobody who makes beautiful novelty thinks their own work is beautiful novelty. (So nobody will appear in favor of it, even if they make it.)

So it's not quite a straw man. Everybody agrees that a certain type of thing is bad, but nobody thinks they themselves are responsible for that thing.

I suspect the author has some specific start-ups in mind but didn't want to call them out. Why have people be distracted by the drama of him dissing $startup in a blog post when he really wants people to ponder a more big picture idea?

I’m not entirely sure why you are attributing things to me I never said and I’m also not quite sure in what context you are responding to me. What’s this “beautiful novelty” you are talking about?

Ah, I just meant that things can seem like a straw man if nobody is arguing the other side... but it isn't a straw man just because nobody identifies with that side (but do actually live and breathe that side).

"Beautiful novelty" is the phrase he used to describe "pretty (but) shitty" start-ups (another phrase in the post).

I know what the phrase means but I think examples are kind of necessary. They don’t even have to be real.

I’m guessing people who think that looking pretty (which is not the same as having good design – though the author of this text seems to believe so) is all that’s needed are really out there. Some. Maybe. I don’t know. But that doesn’t seem to be a view embodied in any way on the website he was linking to and specifically saying he was responding to.

I can’t find the arguments he is responding to on the website he says he is responding to. I think that’s kind of important.

I can't speak for him. But for me, "beautiful novelty" is often a site that impresses me, but doesn't convince me to use it (even if i am its target- so it's not like just because i don't have a dog, and it's a site for dog-owners or whatever).

I imagine that beautiful novelty, like beauty, is subjective and something not everybody would agree on a case by case basis. Though I bet most people have seen a site that had no flaws, was stunning (and yes all you designers- i know it's not just visual, it's interaction, etc) but still didn't convince your head or your heart.

Although I may agree with the premise in the article, I'm sick of this meme like quality of HN headlines. Must we parrot popular, sensationalist headlines to get a point across? The purpose of these articles is to stir up enough controversy to get to the front page of HN.

This article hits a note with the startup community. It actually redefines design from "look & feel" to "practicality". IMO this is a much needed awakening, given all the media hoopla around path's new button. Nobody buys buttons.

Every reductive reasoning is horseshit. Someone needs to write an article about: "Start ups are frequently so complex that their behavior is emergent: it cannot be deduced from the properties of the elements alone."

Another individual conflating design with aesthetic styling. The article has plenty of merit but it is lost in the continuing abuse of what the practice of design is.

I think people are missing the whole point.

The author is not suggesting not having quality design. He isn't even saying design isn't an itegral part of product development.

he's saying everyone is skipping step one, namely figure out what problem you're going to solve. No one asks the proverbial question 'How is my product going to get them laid' (to paraphrase jwz) They just skip straight to having a great way of doing the same exact thing everyone else does just as well.

yes. thank you.

I am a huge fan of the "how will it get my users laid" way of thinking. If your product/service can provide that kind of value even in some protracted form (i.e. I'm not just talking about dating sites) you're on the way to nailing it.

The author of this post is so misguided it boggles the mind… I'm a developer, but I chose to study design in college rather than computer science, because in my opinion design is much harder to master than programming is, and can be a much greater catalyst to success than pure engineering alone can be.

I see design as an enabler. Engineering is where the heavy lifting is done, but design is what makes that possible. I hate to bring up Apple as an example, but when you look at, for example, Siri: voice recognition, understanding grammar and meaning within human sentences and the all technology behind it is fantastic engineering. But what differentiates Siri from anything else out there is the design. The fact that the AI has a personality, that it jokes around and does not feel like a machine, that's what makes it accessible to humans and what makes it so insanely great. And that's design.

I agree with the author to the extend that glossy buttons and a textured background does not a good product make. Indeed, there's a lot of good-looking crap out there—but that's not design, and the author's argument that that's what design is makes him look like an ignorant fool.

Not sure if you got his point. But design much harder than programming is; that's highly debatable. Sure, a lot of people can write code which kind of 'works', that's not really what I would call programming (and I don't think anyone here). As it takes about 10 years to really master writing great code and then get a lot of experience in the trenches, I believe this process is hard and takes a lot of time. Less than learning design. And you can do IA design even though you cannot make things pretty; a lot of people have a feeling for it.

If I (programmer, no design education or talent whatsoever) sit down with a pen and paper and draw a user interface (1 page) 100 times, the 100th time, it'll be quite optimal, consistent and nice. After that it goes through the pretty machine, an artist who cannot do IA, but can do pretty. It's a great combi. With programming, you cannot really do the same trick; you'll end up with crap.

I do agree that it an be a greater catalyst than pure engineering. I don't think it can be much of anything without engineering and value and that was the author his point. Of course when you made a product you want to make it look good and work well ergonomically, but you want the value and the engineering in place first. After reading the article I felt like his real beef is actually with nonsensical vaporware looking pretty to attract investors and morons signing up anyway.

Wrote a brief response here: http://enriqueallen.tumblr.com/post/14480645124/design-both-... Here's a couple excerpts: “Focus on value creation. Design enhances value, it does not create it.” This statement represents the core contradiction and flaw in his argument which barely makes this discussion worth having. Let’s look at the word “creation” which is a fascinating word generally associated with “the action or process of bringing something into existence.” So if you re-write the sentence with this definition, it becomes, “focus on the action or process of bringing value into existence.” But what comes before an action or process whether conscious or subconscious in your DNA? Design. Borrowing from a Google definition, design means, “purpose, planning, or intention that exists or is thought to exist behind an action, fact, or material object.” Therefore to create value one must design how to do it, thus making the rest his post null.

If you agree with the flawed logic of Jon then you must substitute the word “Design” with any discipline concerning the action or behavior of creating value. Thus making a series of useless posts like “Engineering is Horseshit” and so on. You don’t see the design community getting mad at engineers who spend weeks designing an optimal database sharding strategy for building things like a daily-deal aggregator which has 0 users and a growth rate of “Divide by Zero Error” and no viable user acquisition strategy. Of course entrepreneurs should focus on value creation and finding product market fit before spending an inappropriate amount of energy on other activities whether that be visual design or backend infrastructure. Any entrepreneur I invest in should know that elementary lesson from experience or reading the Lean Startup etc.

There may well be many startups which have a great design and no substance - but then there is also the situation where multiple startups exist in a similar space competing for traction - and in that situation having the design 'edge' is never a bad thing..

Personally I find myself in that situation, early stage startup where whilst I have the tech background, design has never come easily to me (and my co-founders are even worst). As we have bootstrapped we didnt have the money for great design and did the best we could! That said it hasnt been the make or break as we have executed well, however first impressions always count... and when looking for investment we have more than once had potential investors misjudge how far we have come or compare us negatively to others in our space as we did not have the design 'edge'. Its a shame, but its a fact of life appearances mean a lot..

Perhaps off topic but be interesting to know how others have managed to overcome gaps in skillsets when bootstrapping? we dont seem to have any contacts with good design skills and available time..

Great post. The only thing I disagree with is your distaste for the designer fund. I think helping designers build startups is a good thing. And it's also important to note the difference between visual design (UI) and UX. You can't create value without good UX. And good designers do both UI and UX. So design is important, the visual aspect not so much, before you have something ppl want

You can't create value without good UX

Entirely incorrect. Read the Lean Startup. Value creation is 100% possible without any UX or anything tangible that the customer "sees" at all. A delivery pizza place provides value. I call them, they deliver pizza. There's no "UX" there beyond what already existed (my phone, a working phone line).

Too many people think the first thing that needs to be solved is how something looks or feels. It's not. You can solve a problem without any UX.

> I call them, they deliver pizza. There's no "UX" there beyond what already existed (my phone, a working phone line).

Give me a moment to finish making my Picard face, here.

The entirety of pizza delivery is user experience.

- Answering the phone with clarity and promptness

- Taking an order with accuracy and clarity

- Creating a pizza that tastes good while matching the customer's order parameters

- Not giving people diarrhea

- Estimating a delivery timeframe

- Delivering the pizza within that timeframe

Botch any one of those things and the experience of ordering the pizza sucks. Botch several and people will stop ordering from that restaurant. Food, in particular, is possibly the largest user experience challenge outside of software. Maybe toolmaking is bigger. But food and restaurants are way up there.

danilocampos >

I think you have a fair point.

However it's important to remember that startups are out there to prove a core value proposition. Everything else, the UX on top of it - that can come later. After you've proven the core. It's all bullshit until then.

So say I'm starting a new pizza place. My value proposition: is pizzas in 10 minutes or less.

that is what I should be optimizing all my efforts around. if I can prove that people want and will pay for pizzas delivered in 10 minutes, even if they taste average, even if my phone etiquette is shitty, even if my delivery guys are smelly - then I know I have something as a startup. my core hypothesis has been proven correct.

then I can spend time working on the "UX" - the layers on top of that core that make the experience much more pleasant.

there are too many new startups obsessed with the layers and not with the core.

Design is a buzzword these days. And as a result I have no idea what this guy is railing against.


I'd like to think that design = caring.

As in: If you care for your users you spend time thinking about how the product should work for them.

[Edit: I wrote this while thinking that we're debating "design" without a common defintion. I've made an attempt to express two different sides of "design".]

Those who aren't building the product often can't express ideas about what they don't see or know about. To them, the design is the surface, the user interface. So naturally they assume that if they want to create a product with "good" design, they should hire someone who does the visual part, and make their product look just like other products that they think are well designed.

If you want a good counter-example, about good design that is very subtle and runs very deep, read "The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance" by Henry Petroski.

Horseshit has been getting a pretty bad rap lately.

Lean Startup has been, for the most part, a trojan horse to get design thinking into engineering driven organizations. Everything the lean startup movement talks about with getting out of the building and customer validation is essentially principles of good user research that the design community has been advocating for since forever.

It's unfortunate that designers still have to battle ignorant misconceptions that their work is about pushing pixels and making things look pretty. At it's heart, design is exactly what this article is advocating for; understanding a deep user need and developing an elegant experience that fulfills that need.

Design is how it works, not just how it looks.

That sounds more like the definition of 'function'.

nobody's ever heralds a well-functioning program as "functions well" though, they say it's designed well or has good usability.

I'm not even sure how to respond to this. I'm going to go herald my well-functioning website now.

If you’re an early stage startup with no revenue, don’t even think about design! Think hard about what problem you can solve that a customer will give you $10 for and work your ass off at delivering that $10 of value as fast and as cheaply as possible.

I don't understand what the author is so riled up about. Why not just delegate responsibilities? Let a designer focus on design, while the engineers focus on the actual product. Does it hurt to have a designer? I don't see why it would.

Good luck trying to sell something to the general public that looks horrid. No matter how well it works.

you're an early stage startup. you're not selling to the general public yet.

you're selling directly to people you find who have the problem that you're solving.

it's exactly that mentality of getting way ahead of yourself before you've even validated and honed your value proposition that I take issue with.

fuck the general public. go solve a real problem for 10 people - it's 1000x more difficult than creating something that looks and feels awesome.

An obvious conclusion if your definition of design is "how something looks". I would suggest that your attitude would doom any startup relying on a human to machine interface to failure. Without a focus on designing for useability or user experience I would argue that your startup will not solve any users problem, as they will give up on even trying to use it. So I think anyone giving credence to you views with respect to their startup will quickly find themselves with a lot of wasted effort and a pile of horseshit.

This is a silly article. It once makes the fatal mistake of equating design with "pushing pixels". Solving the problem is part of the design process. Silly linkbait is silly.

Did I mention it's silly?

"I’ve created products / services in the past that have garnered praise for their design."

...you've also [wisely?] abandoned projects that had great promise without to due diligence necessary to hand them off to a willing steward (Sweetcron).

I was pleased to see your domain here on HN, but I still have a bitter taste after being forced to abandon Sweetcron in favor of Chyrp. Regardless, I've been quite impressed by what you've delivered thus far and am pleased to see your weight provided in the direction of reason.

huh? it's open source - fork it, rename it, relaunch it. a dying project shouldn't be passed on like a baton, it should be evolved and improved by an enthusiastic developer who wants to make the project their own.

Can't blame me for no one wanting to fork Sweetcron.

It's an interesting rant - and quite amusing, but it sounds like the author is debating against aesthetically pleasing visual design, rather than design in general.

Graphic design is visual engineering.

Sometimes the value proposition put forward by a company is 'a way to [do x] better'; if better is equivalent to 'more efficiently', 'more cheaply' or 'more easily' - chances are design is going to be factor that allows the change to happen.

I like his article. He's right. You should first solve the problem, then enhance it with great look and feel. Making it accessible.

The update is worthy to read too.

I am continually baffled, on almost a daily basis, that people continue to argue extremes. The secret to most things in life is balance. A balance between having a great product that solves problems, and good design, is the key. Sure, you can have success on both ends, but to truly shine you need a good balance of both.

Why is such a simple concept so hard for people to understand in practice?

I call my self a designer, and i bet i assist in every other business process more valuable. I think you're mixing up the college kid who messes in photoshop and the evolved interaction designer/ui/all print media etc.

There is huge value in being able to communicate problems visually that comes with the experience provided by being a designer early career.

“Solve a real customer problem.”

This is exactly what design is.

Design is the saddle, the ride, and the journey.

Articles like this are the real droppings. The submitter merely the bowels.

Holy cow what an ill-informed article. Many on this thread have illuminated it's weaknesses, here's my two cents.

To single out design from any other process involved in creating value makes zero sense. In fact in many products design, including visual design is a key differentiator that actually gives the product value (think iPod vs all other mp3 players).

Only programmers or engineers creating extemely cutting edge products that have no competitors could take this attitude than design issues can be set aside till later. What serious person would consider starting a business without incorporating design from the beginning?

Whatever meme out there about design being an edge in a startup is responding to what I see is an incorrect undervaluing of design in the tech community.

Another subtext in the discussion is many tech start ups are making software, web based or otherwise. On a typical program huge amounts of value are delivered as pixels. The user interface is also pixels. A lot of software are tools. Graphic design is mandatory for the thing to exist! Widgets are make or break whether a software tool even works at all.

I use audio software in my job (all day) and many competing applications in this space are at feature parity. UI and Ux is what separate apps that work really well from apps that are painfully slow and frustrating to use. Just consider how color is used in a complex app. It communicates feedback, breaks up function grouping, it helps you find and remember features, it provides a hopefully not unpleasant visual experience since one is staring at for extended periods. I think we are in the Dark Ages of human computer interaction and that bad visual design is a huge contributor to the problem.

BTW, anyone have examples of web services with great design don't offer value?

Linkbait is Horseshit. See the irony? If it wasn't for the manner in which you communicated I and many others probably would've never seen your article on top of HN, let alone read it, even if it did have "value". Design isn't everything, but it's definitely not horseshit.

Some Startups with bad Design have managed to do very well (Craigslist, Ebay etc), but doesn't mean all the startups with bad design will do well. Good Design is necessary, it is what makes you subconsciously love something and use it more often.

It's not what design looks like, rather it's how you use it that helps to determine value. Otherwise it's a work of art.

Design with utility has inherent value that can be quantified. It's silly to categorically say design is horseshit.

You keep using that word. I don't think this word means what you think it means.

+1, but lets not confuse "how it looks" with the people crafting groupon's experience to maximize conversions. world-class designers are more than pixel-pushers, and pixel-pushers aren't world-class designers.

You could write the exact same rant about engineers in response to an info graphic titled "Did you know about billions worth of value created by tech startups with technical co-founders?"

Can anyone care to explain, what do you consider design? It's pretty amazing to see how a word can have different meaning for everyone and being debated.

I think you could say that designers are responsible for the psychological side of a product and developers are responsible for the technical side.

Developers might respond that they created a great product that solves a problem without any designers. To that my reply is that you then you have designed as well.

The whole thing is a strawman. The blogger defined design as a "nice looking user interface" and then proceeded to knock it over.

This is such a short-minded and troll post, surprised it didn't get deleted.

+1 for the use of the word "Horseshit." That's all...

everything is horseshit.

The definitions of everything in this thread keep shifting, it's making me dizzy (design -- are we talking about visual design, functional design??).... it devolved into philosophical arguments where people actually probably agree once the definitions are agreed upon.

1. Step into a public place almost anywhere in the world.

2. Count the number of Apple devices in use. White earbuds are a dead giveaway.

3. Go hire a designer that knows what they're doing and try and accomodate their ideas into those of engineering without making a capon out of anyone.

4. Keep iterating.

Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact